14 Eamesian Parables Posted September 6, 2017 by Eames Demetrios
This is the first of many Director’s Blogs to come. The posts will be a regular installment by Eames Office director, Eames Demetrios, who will share insights into the happenings of the Office from around the world.
This first blog offers an in-depth look at 14 Eamesian Parables, a unique, eye-catching poster that the Eames Office recently released for all to enjoy. Here is a FAQ with Demetrios that reveals the reasoning and ideas behind each of the 14 teachings.
Who came up with these parables? Was it a list made by Charles and Ray?
It is not Charles and Ray’s list at all, but I am sure they would recognize it. So, actually, I came up with it. But I also think that, having studied this work for almost 30 years, it also represents an assessment of the Eameses from a different angle—from the sense of impact in a way.
What is the purpose of the list?
To look at design as a life skill, as well as a professional and creative skill, and to ask: What are the essential messages from the Eameses’ life and work that we all might want to consider applying?
After I finished writing the book An Eames Primer, a number of people asked me what was the essence of what they needed to know about the Eames Philosophy. The question I was interested in was not so much an academic one—or even making a list of important Eames projects—but rather, what are the key Eames ideas that can help us all live better lives?
And, yes, these parables will have a special interest to people passionate about design, but I think they also connect to others on the level that design is a universal human activity. So I spent a lot of time and effort trying to boil things down to the essence. What was the minimum number of ideas I would need to share that would get people started towards all the most resonant things in the world of Charles and Ray Eames? In the end, I came up with 14. It was not a goal—10 would have been appropriate, but it was not enough for the points of contact I wanted to make. Some day it may even be a book.
Are these all Eames Quotes?
Not at all. Actually that was one of the opportunities: To have the freedom to distill lessons from Charles and Ray’s lives and approach without needing to tie it to their own phrasing.
Are the 14 parables based on your book An Eames Primer?
They originated in that work and process, but represent a different way of looking at many of those ideas—as well as some new thinking.
Why call them parables?
Well, as the list developed and was discussed—and especially as the poster idea came up—I’d referred to them as parables to my friend Keith Yamashita, and the name kind of stayed with everyone. And the more we all thought about it, the more they really seemed to be parables in the sense of being lessons that seem simple, but that you can dive into for a long time.
Tell us more about the poster. Who designed it?
SYPartners designed the posters, working with the Eames Office.
How did it come about?
As IBM was preparing for their Centennial in 2011, I was asked to speak to a group at IBM about this distillation of thinking.
One of the founders of SYPartners, the same Keith Yamashita, was IBM’s first Charles and Ray Eames Brand Fellow and author of the book 15 Things Charles and Ray Teach Us (this was published by the Eames Office, and it’s another good list). He is an amazing guy and has done a lot of reflecting and thinking on the Eames work. At that time—and today—IBM, including key leaders such as Jon Iwata, has been very interested in the Eames work—not simply from the historical connection, but from what it means today.
Naturally, that resonates with those of us at the Eames Office who believe that, as beautiful as the objects are, the ideas behind them are just as beautiful.
So, as the presentation neared, which included a multimedia component where I created 14 interactive modules (four to eight videos for each parable) for the presentation, Keith and IBM folks like Jon Iwata, Ann Rubin, and Terry Yoo suggested a hand out be given to offer people a tangible list to hold on to—literally and conceptually. And then I think Keith suggested the poster, and the SYPartners team—Liz Sutton and Keith key among them—pulled it off.
When was it designed?
In 2010 or so.
Why did it take so long to bring out?
We have just been busy, I guess. But several months ago, Keith reached out and asked if it might be time. With the Barbican show touring Europe in 2016 and 2017 and coming to the U.S. in 2018, it seemed like a beautiful moment to share these ideas.
Have you changed the poster since creating it for IBM?
It is the same one, with more detailed credits. We started to tweak it, but in the end decided that all those decisions made back then still held together aesthetically. And this FAQ is to answer all the things that aren’t obvious, but to put on the poster would be tiresome. Some people assume that the quotes mean those are Charles and Ray’s words, and that is more than understandable, but ALL the parables are kind of a call to arms—so we kept that energy of the quotes. I will detail the sources when we discuss each parable.
What about the parables themselves? Can we go through them one by one?
Well, I can give a quick thumbnail, but there is a lifetime in each one. That’s what makes them parables. Unless otherwise indicated, the parable names are ones I created. But I hope everyone who has explored Charles and Ray’s work will recognize them!
Yes, let’s do it. Let’s go through the parables one by one.
1. Start from a pure place.
This one really has to do with the idea that, if you work on a project not because you believe in it, but because you think it will be good for your career or something like that, then you are unlikely to succeed either spiritually or practically. But if it is something you believe in, then you know the journey itself will reward you. Charles and Ray’s entire careers were animated by this attitude.
When we look back at their work, their success seems inevitable. But when they moved into the Eames House Christmas Eve of 1949, the future was not nearly so clear. Some writers even claim that the Eameses only branched into film and toys and communications because of their success in furniture, but actually, by that same Christmas Eve, 1949, Charles and Ray had done exhibitions, architecture, furniture, toys, graphics, film, explored multimedia, education, communications—all the media they would later be well-known for.
They came from a pure place. It was a revelation Charles had on his trip to Mexico during the depression—but, as I said, one could explore for a life time in each of these parables, so I will leave it at that.
2. ITERATE. ITERATE. ITERATE.
In every medium they worked in or explored—architecture, film, furniture—they sought as many iterations as possible to gain the insight of being inside the problem deeply. Countess versions of the plywood shell, dozens of the Lounge Chair and Ottoman, three versions of Powers of Ten, and even in the most expensive creative medium of all—architecture: Two complete iterations of the Eames House.
3. The Guest-Host Experience.
This is a Charles and Ray quote. Charles said the role of the designer was basically that of a good host, anticipating the needs of the guest. This is a deeply humanizing concept, putting the human being rather than an ideology in the center of the design process. This is also the kind of idea that resonates with many kinds of business people.
4. Powers of Ten Thinking.
They did not use this precise phrase, but it clearly expressed their feelings about the value of looking at things from different scales—something Charles remembered Eliel Saarinen discussing. Finally, this idea was expressed most clearly in the Powers of Ten films—as well as a test iteration they did.
5. Embrace the Role of Spectacle.
Again, this is not a Charles and Ray quote, but I think they understood that direct experience was a great teacher. Even the Case Study program is based on this. Spectacle gets a bad rap, I think, in that it usually implies a kind of lack of meaning. Charles and Ray saw that spectacle at its best could be a direct experience that taught deeply.
The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair is one example; Powers of Ten has a gee-whiz quality that underlies great meaning; and the Probability Machine in their exhibition Mathematica lets people see things for themselves. They talked about the importance of learning from primary experience. Deep spectacle, like those Eames ones I just listed, is just that kind of primary experience.
6. Design is a method of Action.
This is a Charles and Ray quote from their film Design Q&A. The bonus quote here is, “The extent to which you have a design style is the extent to which you have not solved the design problem.” Both quotes place design squarely in the camp of process and problem solving rather physical appearance.
7. Never Delegate Understanding.
Though James Franco put this quote in Charles and Ray’s collective mouth in his PBS documentary, it is actually an observation from the book An Eames Primer. Two facets are important. 1) When the Office was working on a project, they never said to their science consultants, “Tell us what to say so we can make it look pretty.” The Eameses needed to understand the concept so the design could be a meaningful expression of that understanding. 2) Similarly, every medium that Charles and Ray worked in, they always explored on their own—just the two of them—before they involved the staff.
The John Wills chair is a classic example: The first full scale test of fiberglass as a material for the Eames Shell Chair was a shell Charles and Ray commissioned from a man who made boat hulls. When we discovered that test shell 45 years later, no one who worked at the Eames Office—or for Herman Miller and their vendors—had any idea it had been made or even existed, but they had always wondered how Charles knew so much about fiberglass.
8. The Story of the Lota.
This parable is not only a Charles and Ray quote, but also something that Charles and Ray almost literally discussed as a parable (along with the Banana Leaf story). It was a key thread of the India Report. Basically, in the India Report, the story of the Lota is used to invite the Indian government and design community to resist the temptation to fetishize the past in a specific form, but, rather, to learn from the traditional processes of the past to design the objects and systems of the future.
9. There is no house style. Just a legacy of problems well solved.
This is a not-so-well-known quote that really says it all. It is from Bill Lacey, who worked at the Eames Office in the late 1970s and went on to be the head of SUNY-Purchase. It was said after Charles’ death, and I think Charles would have loved the assessment. It speaks directly to the beautiful paradox that the Eames work is considered stylish, even though that was nowhere on their list of goals. Charles often spoke about how designing the tools for making the molded wood products taught them so much about design itself.
10. The Solution is the Model of the Problem.
This a Charles and Ray quote. It comes from the Norton Lectures when Charles is talking about Eero Saarinen’s architecture, and he talks about the path of Brunelleschi and systems design. He places Eero as the culmination of this approach and says something like, his work evolved to the point where the solution is the model of the problem. I almost think Charles was projecting here—in a lovely way. I believe there is a lot of truth in applying that same lens to the Eames work. I think it holds up. One could argue that the Eames LCW is a model of the problem of the limitations of molding plywood, for example.
NB: This poster and the activities around it were never intended as a quote poster; rather, it is a call to action. The quotes underscore that aspect of the action that Charles and Ray’s life and work call us all to.
11. Prepared Spontaneity.
This is not a quote by Charles and Ray. To me this is a very inclusive way to get at the value of the circus and that famous Eames quote: “The best you can do between now and Tuesday is a kind of best you can do.” This quote is often taken as an expression of “Go with your gut; first impressions are best.” But I think it is actually about working hard, so that when you do go from your gut, you are ready—because you have modeled this situation to yourself before.
The circus meant a lot of things to Charles and Ray, but one of them has to be the ability to be both very well prepared and to discard it in the moment for a better solution. Charles’s lectures were that way. The photography is that way—what matters is not fetishizing the preparation, but the engagement in the response.
12. After the Age of Information comes the Age of Choices.
This is an Eames quote that perfectly describes the situation of the world today in many different areas. Spoken 45 years ago, it captures the fact that the vaunted information age does not in itself solve problems without the tools to understand, connect, and interrogate that information. It is also an example of what is now called Design Thinking, because it proposes that this very human, very high order, almost existential challenge is, in the end, a problem of design.
13. Eames Design Diagram.
Done for the What is Design exhibition in the late 1960s in Paris, the diagram talks about the relationship with the client—specifically the importance of working within the overlap of the interests of the designer, the client, and society. It’s a beautiful, simple drawing, of which there are quite a few drafts.
14. The New Covetables.
We end on an Eames quote. The products of the Eames Office did not simply include objects and experiences. Ideas were also products of the Eames Office. The essence of the New Covetables was first an observation that, if success is owning physical things, then we have just doomed most of the world’s population to failure—because there is not enough anything to make a BMW for everyone.
Most of our covetables these days are material or money driven, BUT what if we created new covetables that cost something, but that, as Charles said, “the coin of the realm” was effort or commitment. AND, what if we had covetables that gained value the more people had them—rather than lose value with our current scarcity approach. Things like learning a language or reading a map qualify. What is lovely, is that this is part of a path to a healthy Earth as well as humanity.
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